In nearly a decade of writing about charters in the nation’s capital, I have never seen a decision by a school like the one revealed by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein last week. Here is Democracy Prep PCS, a stellar charter network with facilities in six cities, deciding before the new school year had even begun that it would shutter its classrooms here in Washington, D.C. at the end of the term. It has announced it will find another operator for the site. Here’s how the school’s website describes its track record:
“Founded in 2005 and opening our first school in 2006, Democracy Prep set out to prove what is possible for public education in America. Our flagship school, Democracy Prep Charter Middle School, first opened its doors in August 2006. By 2009, DPCS became the highest performing school in Central Harlem and was ranked the number one public middle school in New York City.
Democracy Prep Public Schools currently operates 22 high-performing schools and one program in New York, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Baton Rouge, and Las Vegas educating 6,500 citizen-scholars. The incredible growth of the scholars is possible through the tireless and dedicated work of the educators who make up our DREAM Team.
By proving that students, regardless of what ZIP code they are born into, can perform at high academic levels, we seek to transform not only the lives of the students at Democracy Prep but also the expectation of what public schools can achieve.”
I guess there is an exemption for closing the achievement gap if the zip code is in Washington, D.C. But this is absurd. This is not the way charter schools operate.
What has happened to the can-do, beat-the-odds no matter what is thrown at us, attitude that has characterized this movement since its inception more than twenty years ago? It was perfectly captured this year in the efforts of Washington Math Science and Technology PCS that fought with all its might to stay open despite intractable financial difficulties. It is the fortitude that is found in any of the city’s charters that has been successful in securing a permanent facility. It is the guts and bravery of the heroic individuals who believe they can start a school from nothing and hire the staff, design the curriculum, recruit the families, and balance a budget as part of the start-up business that a charter school represents.
So if Democracy Prep is really going to throw in the towel, we really have to understand the reason. We need to know because we cannot let it spread to other institutions. We need to stamp it out like we would a racial slur or the words of someone who defends the status quo in public education as the best that we can do. We cannot let it infect people who believe with every cell in their bodies that today is going to be a better day than the one before it.
I only ask one thing of Democracy Prep. Please don’t let the entire school school year go by before you select another operator. Make that choice immediately so we don’t have to be tortured watching the slow demise of a school with a proud and distinguished history. Get out of town now. Its bad enough you are going to abandon over 650 children living in poverty, but I urge you not to let this tragedy linger in our minds like some plague that has been foisted upon the citizens of our city.
Am I upset? You bet I am. The move by Democracy Prep is a direct shot at the bright optimism of all of us that fight around the clock to improve the lives of others who in the past have been told in no uncertain terms that they are not important. At the end of the day, it is often only the optimism that we have left.